September 19, 2009

Object Economies: Beyond a Great Depression

Conrad Bakker, "Untitled Project: eBay/DEPRESSION GLASS" 2009

Conrad Bakker, “Untitled Project: eBay/DEPRESSION GLASS” 2009

With all the talk today swirling around issues of the economy and its impact on the artworld (Commercial gallery implosions! No sales! Museums slashing budgets! Art department layoffs!), I am heartened by creative projects that address in some way this depression/recession/whatever-you-want-to-call-it — especially those that are not necessarily offering up utopian solutions but scrutinizing how and why we create value in art and commodities in the first place.

Illinois-based artist Conrad Bakker’s “Untitled Project: eBay/DEPRESSION GLASS” consists of an auction of nine paintings of 1930’s-era glass, all up for offer on that famous online site of value and exchange. The intimately-scaled works, each around 7″ x 9″, are painted from jpg images Bakker has culled from other eBay sellers. As he states on his project site:

“Beginning Friday, September 18, 2009, each of these paintings will be auctioned on eBay in the [Pottery & Glass > Glass > Glassware > Depression] category and the profits will be donated to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, a local charitable organization whose goal is to alleviate hunger in eastern Illinois by providing a reliable source of food for the hungry through cooperation with a network of food pantries and agencies.”

I’ve been an avid fan of Bakker and his work, which smartly pokes at the ties that bind art with consumerism, and at how objects inhabit our imagined space of value. While other artists have also played within the weird and wonderful world of eBay, Bakker strikes me as being more interested in utilizing it as an arena for social dialogue as opposed to simply a marketplace or ironic online outlet for wares. As the bids come in and the price of each painting rises, more money gets channeled toward the Foodbank. What began as an image of a collectible tchotchke  ripe with historical allusion (Depression glass) becomes an artwork representing our already-historicized present (our “Great Recession”), which then goes on to fund an immediate, tangible need. The flow of object to image to object and back to reality traces a system of desire, production, consumption, and (re)valuation.

Get thee to eBay, pronto! But I’m not telling you which one I’ll be bidding on, since I hate a good bidding war and the ultimate sense of defeat and remorse it can arouse (“if only I had put in one dollar more..!”). So far, only the first day into what is to be a nine-day auction, one painting is already at $255. But another sits languidly by at $26.99.

Conrad Bakker, "Untitled Project: SUBSCRIPTION (ArtForum International)"

Conrad Bakker, “Untitled Project: SUBSCRIPTION (ArtForum International)”

I am still super pissed that I never nabbed Bakker’s limited edition of carved and hand-painted “subscriptions” to 10 issues of ArtForum (circa 1969) for only the standard subscription rate of $72 plus $8 shipping and handling. While over two decades of accumulated ArtForums — all adding up to quite a chunk of change — sit neglected like slim, nagging, conceptual paperweights behind me on a shelf, I yearn for these handmade proxies.

Value-added, indeed.


PS —  I do have to give a shout out to the “Significant Objects” project by Rob Walker (of Murketing fame and writer of the NY Times column “Consumed”) and Joshua Glenn, cultural critics who examine “the manifold ways in which all of us, whether we realize it or not, invest inanimate objects with significance.” By pairing an anonymous tchotchke with a writer of some repute and enlisting said person to invent a story about said object, the question as to if value is added by this process is put to the test via… you guessed it: eBay. Over 60 contributers have participated or plan to participate, including speculative fiction writer Bruce Sterling, critic Luc Sante, and our own Open Space columnist Michelle Tea.

A plastic coconut cup and a short little work by tech-geek grrrrrrl Annalee Newitz for only $10? Rad.


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